Sports diplomacy: How the United States is using athletics to build relationships

When US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited the Middle East last fall, he did not go there just to talk about oil and natural gas, terrorism or the war in Ukraine.

He also went there to talk about football.

Before the US National Team Opening of the World Cup in QatarBlinken joined representatives of the US team and dozens of young Qatari boys and girls for a soccer clinic, where he spoke about one of the most useful tools in his diplomatic toolbox: sports.

“We use sport as a way to connect people, to connect people to our country. Every time I travel around the world – regardless, again, of our differences – sport brings us together, unites us, connects us,” he said.

To that end, the State Department’s sports diplomacy program has sent surfers to Papua New Guinea, brought ambassadors like Shaquille O’Neal to Cuba, and organized sports camps attended by Israelis and Palestinians. He has also brought hundreds of leaders from grassroots sports organizations from around the world to the United States as part of a mentorship program designed to encourage and empower leaders while expanding sports opportunities for young returning athletes. country.

And it does all of this on an annual budget of around $6 million — so small that even in the hyper-partisan political climate in Washington, sports diplomacy has remained under the fray, finding fans in blue and red teams.

Young soccer players kicking balls at a sports diplomacy event

Young soccer players kick balls during a sports diplomacy event hosted by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Doha, Qatar on November 21.

(Ron Przysucha/Department of State)

“Sports diplomacy,” said Ashleigh Huffman, director of the sports diplomacy division for the past 15 months, “is the State Department’s best-kept secret.”

Although the program, which is part of the Department of Educational and Cultural Affairs headed by Lee Satterfield, the Assistant Secretary of State, was formally established following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the concept of using sport to diplomatic purposes is nothing new. President Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972, for example, would not have happened without an exchange of table tennis players between the United States and China a year earlier, which led to a thaw in relations. between the two countries.

And the United States isn’t the only country that believes in the power of sport. Australia, Spain and England all have government ministers or civil service actors doing this work while the European Union has a whole strategy devoted to sports diplomacy.

“Sport is this universal language, isn’t it? No matter where you go you can throw a ball and that transcends differences,” said Huffman, 39, who was among the guest speakers at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Ojai in November. “The programs, the exchanges, connect us through sport, tap into this shared universal language.”

But sports exchanges are not always used with benevolence. Sometimes they hide far more nefarious goals.

Four days after hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, founded to promote peace through sport, Russia invaded Crimea. Nazi Germany staged the 1936 Summer and Winter Games three years before its tanks arrived in Poland. More recently, Qatar has hosted more than 600 international sporting events, including world track championships, a Formula 1 Grand Prix and international bowling, squash, table tennis and equestrian events during the decade leading up to last year’s World Cup, according to critics. , to use sport to mask the stain of the country’s abysmal human rights record. It’s the same thing critics say Saudi Arabia is doing with its LIV golf tour, a practice that has become so widespread it now has a name: sports washing.

The United States Sports Diplomacy Program works with embassies and consulates abroad to highlight strategic foreign policy goals for which sports could be a good diplomatic tool. Suppose a surf program in Barbados contacts the Embassy in Bridgetown for assistance. Diplomats there could then settle on climate change as a related US government priority and Huffman and his team of five contact the World Surf League, the International Surfing Assn. or another group to help set up a program that links surfing to climate change.

Huffman, who played college basketball in eastern Kentucky, said she was involved in virtually every sport, including skateboarding, breakdancing, mountain climbing and baseball, though the basketball and soccer are the most in-demand and that US national team star Megan Rapinoe is the most-in-demand athlete.

“One industry where the United States is still considered a superpower is the sports sphere,” she said. “When we talk about American values ​​and we talk about freedom, justice and equality, if that’s really what we stand for, how can we look at places that are less free, less equal and say we don’t don’t we have some kind of responsibility to share what has been given to us?That we don’t have a responsibility to equip and empower people to change their communities if they need to?

“Where there is privilege, there is responsibility. And we have a lot of privileges in the United States.

Ashleigh Huffman reunites with several people reaching out to her with open hands

Sports Diplomacy Division Chief Ashleigh Huffman, second from right, meets with the inaugural class of the Department of State’s ESPNW Global Sports Mentoring Program.

(State Dept.)

At home, the State Department is working with the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, which Huffman helped found, to implement the espnW Global Sports Mentoring program. This five-week exchange program connects U.S. mentors and sports organizations with leaders representing grassroots sports programs from more than 72 countries.

The latest class of 15, which arrived last fall, included delegates from Kosovo, Croatia, India, Zanzibar and Egypt.

“They are the experts in their community. We can’t copy and paste what we might think would work here because we don’t know the context. Our role is to coach, help and support them,” said Carolyn Spellings, chief of assessment, research and accountability at the Center for Sport and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. .

Spellings, like Huffman, is convinced that sport can also be effective in more typical diplomatic situations such as conflict resolution, as it breaks down barriers, facilitating negotiation and compromise.

“It humanizes the other person,” she said. “It sort of takes away the labels you might have for each other.”

Sport also reinforces the importance of rules, which can help diplomacy.

“There are rules in a society that you have to follow. Sport has the opportunity to achieve these goals,” said Spellings, who grew up playing basketball and soccer. “As the competition escalates, the consequences can be more serious than a 7-year-old playing football. But the sport is unique in that sense.

“Sport is not the magic solution to everything. But it can be useful to start solving these problems.

Take Title IX, a uniquely American law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any school or other federally funded education program. While the language of the law is not limited to sports, that is where its effect has been felt the most, opening up opportunities for tens of millions of female athletes.

The Sports Diplomacy Program has tried to use this as an example of how a small change can have a big effect.

“We’re taking those lessons from Title IX and applying them in Uganda, Brazil and the Philippines and it’s making a real difference,” Huffman said. “Sport is a low-cost, high-impact tool. It really changes people’s lives and then that person can change the lives of others, their school, their community and beyond.

She speaks from experience. Basketball helped pay for her education, and since earning her doctorate, she’s traveled to three dozen countries coaching young girls, women and refugees, teaching lessons that go far beyond football. triangular offense and half-court press.

“If we can get together on the field and the athlete [or] teammate can be our primary identity and then all of these other identities can kind of become secondary and you can actually have a conversation,” said Huffman, who wrote her master’s thesis on sports in the Israeli-Palestinian context. “I see it working. I know it works.”

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